Born 16 June 1898, Brookline, Massachusetts; died 6 December 1971, Chicago, Illinois
Wrote under: Joseph Maree Andrew
Daughter of Joseph and Mary Anne Bonner; married William A.Occomy, 1930; children: William, Jr.; Warwick, Marita
Marita Bonner was among the foremost artists, educators, and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance. She began her writing career as a student at Brookline High School where her contributions to the student magazine drew the attention of a faculty member who encouraged her to enroll at Radcliffe. There she majored in English and comparative literature and studied creative writing with the celebrated Professor Charles "Copey" Copeland. A lifelong student of music and German language and literature, Bonner received a B.A. from Radcliffe in 1922. She went on to publish a host of plays, essays, reviews, and short fiction, some of which received long-overdue publication in the prize-winning collection, Frye Street and Environs (1987), edited by Bonner's daughter with Joyce Flynn.
While residing in Boston, Washington D.C., and then Chicago, Bonner taught English, participated in a theater company, and was actively involved in an eminent literary "salon." A regular contributor to the major journals of the Harlem Renaissance, Crisis and Opportunity magazines, Bonner won the 1925 Crisis Award for her essay, "On Being Young—a Woman—and Colored" and the 1927 Crisis Contest Award for four other works in three genres. She received honorable mention in the 1925 Opportunity Awards for her short story, "The Hands".
Bonner's heightened awareness of her role as a black woman artist surfaces in "On Being Young." She boldly articulates the unenviable and taxing position of a relatively privileged black woman who is deeply concerned with the spiritual and political welfare of her "people," particularly those who are socially and economically impoverished, less fortunate than herself.
Bonner's drama and short stories are marked by a diverse range of literary devices and strategies. Experimentally and thematically expansive, her fiction explores on one level the psychological states of black American women enduring the yoke of racial, sexual, and class oppression. On another level, her short fiction—commonly set in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s—treats the experiences of the historically disenfranchised black community engaged with the racist American society at large. Her best-known play, The Purple Flower (1928), is a vexing allegorical portrayal of racism in America. In several of her stories, Bonner meticulously examines the problems of class and complexion within the black community; here, she is a thematic associate of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. Also evident in Bonner's work is her penetrating vision of the human condition, manifested through her symbolic thoroughfare, Frye Street.
The quilt, by now a familiar icon of black women's writing, most faithfully symbolizes the colorful and complex body of Bonner's works. The quilt epitomizes as well her snugly interwoven place in the black women's writing tradition.
Exit, an Illusion (1923). The Pot Maker: A Play to Be Read (1927).
Short fiction in Opportunity (Aug. 1925, Dec. 1927, July 1933, Aug. 1933, Sept. 1933, July 1934, March 1936, July 1938, Jan. 1939) and in Crisis (Sept. 1926, May 1928, June 1939, Dec. 1939, March 1940, Feb. 1941).
The papers of Marita Bonners are housed in the Radcliffe College Archives.
Abramson, D. E., Angelina Grimkél, Mary Burrill, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Marita Bonner: An Analysis of Their Plays (1985). Dana, M. W., "Working Women in Depression-Era Short Fiction: The Short Stories of Tess Slesinger, Dorothy Parker and Marita Bonner" (dissertation, 1999). Flynn, J. Marita Bonner Occomy (1987). Roses, L. E., and R. E. Randolph, Marita Bonner: In Search of Our Mothers's Gardens (1987). Roses, L. E., Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Literary Biographies of 100 Black Women Writers 1900-1945 (1990).
DLB 51 (1987). Dictionary of the Harlem Renaissance (1984). Early Black American Playwrights and Dramatic Writers (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Black American Literary Forum (Spring/Summer 1987). Saga (1985).
—SHARON A. LEWIS